August 1, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘All In’ sheds light on flaws in the democratic system

“All In: The Fight for Democracy” paints a daunting, damning — but ultimately hopeful — portrait of voter suppression throughout American history. From the days of Reconstruction to literally recent months, the Amazon Studios film documents the fight regarding who votes (and who is excluded) in our democracy, and why.

On a phone call to discuss the historical context of the film, directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus were joined by Georgia’s former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who helped produce the film. Many consider Abrams the driving force behind Georgia’s recent big Senate Democratic win and who, along with the world, watched the next day as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in protest of the 2020 election results.

How do the events at the Capitol earlier this month connect to voter suppression?

Stacey Abrams: I’m dismayed by what we saw, sickened by the lack of regard for human life, although for notions of democracy I am not surprised. (I) grew up in a region of the country where my entire life, Mississippi’s state flag was the Confederate battle flag, and during my early adult years the Confederate battle flag was Georgia’s state flag.

When you enter government spaces, which are supposed to be available to all, and are then warned at the outset they celebrate the violent attempt to overthrow the country and the subjugation of an entire people, you cannot be surprised when we see that insurrection, that terrorism taken to what they would see as a logical extension: which is to overthrow an election that did not go their way and terrorize Americans out of celebrating what was an extraordinary achievement in Georgia the night before.

The film describes how women’s long journey to suffrage took their entire lives — and sometimes their daughter’s — to achieve their goals. Now, substantial franchise achievements can be made in relatively short periods of time.

Liz Garbus: The speed is incredible, but it’s all decades in the making. What we saw in Georgia was because of the hard work from people like Stacey and others on the ground going door-to-door and expanding the electorate house by house. What happened in Washington was the result of a big lie fed to Americans about election fraud. We talk about both of those in the film. The lie seeded by Donald Trump since he arrived on the political scene. So it’s all bubbling over — both the progress and the reaction.

Lisa Cortes: I’d add the tremendous push and pull between progress and entrenchment in terms of voting rights in the country typically takes place over a longer period of time. What we witnessed [this month] happened in a 24-hour period and showed how quickly progress — amazing progress — can happen, and how the pushback unfortunately happened so quickly with that insurrection.

How challenging was it to pull 100 years of voter suppression into the film and make it not seem like an academic lecture?

Cortes: [What we did] was find moments toggled together between past and present. For example, felon voting rights, which happened in the past but is happening right now. Past is prologue to this moment we find ourselves in. As a nation we’re really asking ourselves how did we get here? Well, [the film’s] a great guide to our history because certain patterns are reciprocal: the promise of Reconstruction, which is then followed by the intimidation of Jim Crow. We can fast-forward in time, and there’s progress, then there’s pushback. It was important to us you didn’t see the past in a separate silo, but its intimate connection to our present.

Some of the facts you showcase are shocking: How Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist worked in voter suppression in his early Republican career. And how during Reconstruction 67% of Mississippi’s Black male population were registered voters but that dropped to 3% by World War II’s end. Were you equally surprised by these kinds of facts?

Gorbus: We knew, but the depths of it were quite astonishing when we dug in and did deep research. Our own interest in history and with our conversations with Leader Abrams, we knew the odds being leveraged but it’s quite sobering to quantitatively present them.

Cortes: A lot of people react to those moments. It is shocking to a lot of people how much they didn’t know about the various forms disenfranchisement has taken over our history.

How prominent a role does the type of voter suppression the film quantifies play in other failed democracies?

Abrams: It’s not in the film, but in my book [“Our Time Is Now”] I try to articulate how close as a nation we came under the last administration to failed democracy and how there’s a through line that links populist authoritarian presidents in very, very terrifying ways. Turkey was one of the rising democracies in the 20th century, and it’s now a dictatorship. Hungary was a thriving democracy; there’s the Philippines, even India.

I do think it’s a through-line: Voter suppression is the tool leveraged most often by populist authoritarians and by dictators to hold onto power. And they target the same. They target the poor, minorities, ethnic and religious and racial minorities because they are often the people who seek to end the oppressive policies that are the hallmark of authoritarianism.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

Cortes: When bureaucracy doesn’t work, we as citizens can walk away and think it’s on us — we are doing something wrong. The hope with the film is to point out how the large system that gives people rights is deeply flawed. It pulls away the curtain to show voter suppression is part of a plan to minimize the voices of largely Black and brown and student populations, and once you see it as part of a plan you’ll feel inspired to make sure ours is a more democratic society.

Garbus: It can seem at times like a monster movie. There’s a hydra, you cut its head off and another head appears. But on the flip side you also see when you ask that question “How did we get here?” you see it’s through the tremendous hard work, dedication and commitment of people with boots on the ground to see that democracy’s promise for all is not a fallacy. So when you cut off the monster’s head, you shine light on the possibility for all of us to be engaged in this democracy, a democracy that’s fragile but is our birthright.